by Nura Ahmed
I remember in my first grade class, two years after 9/11, only moments before the U.S. declared war on Iraq, feeling this uncomfortable glare and attention from my teacher as she looked at me when she called my name for roll call. This only continued on throughout the school year when everyone found out I had a Muslim family. Being one of the few Muslim families in my area during the post-9/11 era, with the language used around being an immigrant, Black, and Muslim impacting the discourse in my community and in America at large, it was increasingly difficult feeling like I truly mattered or that I deserved to be there.
Granted, my family had come from Somalia only a few months before, and I felt this discomfort every year before moving to a place where I went to a diverse school and community in fifth grade. Even if it wasn’t any better afterwards. All I know is throughout the whole time, I felt isolated, alone, and afraid. Afraid of what these people would do to me. And I always questioned why they constantly hated me when I didn’t do anything.
All through my life until college, that feeling continuously came up for me as I transitioned into adult life. During my teenage years, I made myself more palatable to the white gaze. I tried to assimilate into American culture while losing myself in the process. I would anglicize my name, switch my tone every time I was around my white friends, distance myself from people like me as much as possible. In the process, I internalized a lot of these oppressive ideas that surrounded my identity. While being one of the few Black Muslim women in my whole class, I experienced a level of racism that I never expected. I was criminalized in my classes by my teachers who scolded and gaslighted me. They punished me for talking or doing things differently when all I was doing was bringing a different perspective to the table.
But the reality is, being Black and Muslim, we face a level of racism and oppression most people will never face in their lifetime. Possessing two identities that are the most hated in this country makes you show up in ways that will constantly silence you and erase you from the narratives that run through the American public discourse. Because of growing up in an environment where what I said was constantly policed — where I was constantly criminalized and punished for just existing — I have always felt silenced when it truly mattered, and it made me feel increasingly invisible for so long. I have always thought that in order for these ideas people had about me to stop, I had to succumb to whiteness. It is frustrating feeling immensely guilty and terrible for just existing. But that is something I soon realized so many just like me face on a constant basis.
Language has an impact on our everyday discourse and the perception of who we are. Because this society says you’re a terrorist or you’re a criminal, that is what you are even if that is not who you want to be. That is what society says you are and that is what everyone you meet will see. As Black Muslims, we are constantly told we are criminals and terrorists — two of the most used buzzwords and language in the media. This has been extremely harmful especially in regard to how we show up in the world. As a result, we end up being surveilled, criminalized, penalized, and more.
It’s not new that people like me live at the intersections of two of the most criminalized identities in this country. Being Black and Muslim means we are constantly subjected to an immense amount of surveillance and criminalization solely because of who we are. But too often, people end up paying for it with their lives.
Take, for example, Dolal Idd.
Dolal Idd was a 23-year-old Black Somali American man who was murdered by the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) on December 30, 2020. He was outside a gas station when MPD pulled up on him. Obviously there was an altercation, but Dolal ended up losing his life because of it.
Dolal was actually a person of interest for law enforcement, which caused him to be heavily surveilled by the police. Dolal ended up being framed for crimes he was lured into committing by informants MPD hired to scope out his criminal potential. This charade ended with MPD taking his life.
Dolal was a Black Muslim man. A Somali man. And a son of immigrants.
Because Dolal Idd was Black and Muslim, it made him an easy target for MPD to surveil and criminalize him. His identity alone made him a person of interest which, in turn, cost him his life. Very similar moments have happened all over the country. Black Muslims are incarcerated and murdered because of the supposed “criminality” this society has placed on us, though that criminality was never truly the case to begin with.
If you are not Black and/or Muslim, imagine what it’s like for people to see you only one way. No matter how much you plead and beg, “That is not me!”, they still won’t believe you. Now imagine that image being so harmful to you that it ends up killing you. For so many Black Muslims all over the country, society criminalizes us despite our innocence. Nonetheless, that perception of criminality can end up being incredibly deadly.
In Seattle, heavy criminalization and surveillance in Black Muslim communities is very much apparent. In New Holly, a neighborhood located near Othello Station, there are about six to nine traffic cameras on any given street. Those street cameras are directly used by the Seattle Police Department (SPD) and other City entities such as Seattle Department of Traffic (SDOT). The neighborhood essentially has a police department at its center. New Holly is a dense, largely East African community, with about 70–80% of that community being Muslim. This is the reason why SDOT and SPD are trolling that neighborhood so heavily. The supposed criminality attached to our identities and the way the police and carceral state is so determined to “prove” this criminality — even if they have to use entrapment to do it — means that so much of our community is being harmed, violence is being inflicted against us, and no one even knows it. This is mirrored in how the government treats us, through government surveillance programs such as CVE (countering violent extremism).
According to a report written by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2016, shortly after Trump’s election, SPD applied for a $400,000 grant to institute a CVE program right here in our own city and, shockingly enough, it was approved and continued for three and a half years until the program ended in 2019. SPD was specifically recognized as a model department for this program. CVE was increasingly damaging for communities that exist within Seattle because Black immigrant and Muslim communities were targeted. Instances of entrapment can and have happened for many of these people all over Seattle.
For example, Malak Shalabi, a local organizer against government surveillance programs such as CVE, has personally been a target of entrapment by DHS informants who were actively attempting to lure her into doing heinous acts.
Malak shares in a Twitter thread, “I now understand my story to be part of a systemic issue of discriminatory surveillance and targeting of the Muslim community. I hope someone, and anyone can learn from my experience.”
Her story is like many others. Since the beginning of the post-9/11 era, Muslims have been targeted in the name of the war on terrorism. CVE, the databank of Muslim names that the New York Police Department (NYPD) has stored, the surviellance of Muslims in largely Muslim populations like Detroit and Minnepolis — these are just a few of the many ways that government has countinously worked to prove the supposed criminality of these communities.
Black Muslims, however, are at the epicenter of two of the most targeted identities in this country and for us, police violence and incarceration becomes a terrifying reality. Every. Single. Day.
Islamophobia and racism are two systems that have actively worked against Black and Brown communities, ALL under white supremacy. We fail to realize that more often than not, it is our own community members, our own family members and loved ones who are being harmed — who all of this is happening to. The police and carceral state has done nothing but inflict an immense amount of harm to our communities and, as a result, have consistently traumatized us for decades. All so that they could prove an image that we have debunked over and over again.
It is critical that we understand how both systems have continually used this image against our own community and will do anything to validate it. Furthermore, if we don’t understand how this image can be detrimental to our communities’ ability to move forward together collectively, that harm will be compounded.
I have never felt like I had control over my own story. I felt helpless and powerless to change this image that people had of me — to try to tell it myself even if that means taking it back forcefully. For people like Dolal and so many others, this image society had of him meant a death sentence, and forces like the police state did everything they could to affirm that image. But all their efforts achieved was to take another life that deserved a chance to breathe.
Dolal was not much older than me. He was another brother, cousin, friend, son, and more to the Minneapolis community. But the fact that something like this — an image — can be so harmful to an individual that it can kill them means something far more than people may realize.
Language is powerful and life-changing, especially when it comes to the way the media talks about us. It has the ability to change policy even in the smallest ways. Language has the power to either harm our communities or to help us. The police and carceral state have always used language to justify the violence that happens onto our communities, to harm us, and more. At the end of the day, heavy surveillance and criminalization of our communities is what causes lives to be taken — and this is what causes the violence and trauma. And all of this stems from the decades of buzzwords used in the media, from the language that we constantly see being used to describe us. It is the ongoing image that this world has of us. This image then starts to become a reality for us. It starts to form into our truth when we never had a chance to form that truth for ourselves. Nonetheless, this truth that this society has made for us then becomes so deadly and so life-threatening that it can kill us.
Every day there will be another of us who will be surveilled and criminalized. Another of us who has to pay for that image that they never chose. It may cost them their life — and that is exactly what these systems ultimately want.
When you live every day being constantly harmed, living through violence and trauma, and you don’t know why, the result can be that you never have the chance to heal and move forward, as individuals and together as a community. I promise you, no one deserves this. However, this damage is exactly what these systems are created to do. It was created to use this language and image that this society has about us to continue to harm us even if it’s an image that we never ascribed to ourselves.
None of us deserve this harm.
None of us deserve this violence.
Our communities deserve better.
We need to start reimagining what a healthy and healing community looks like without the police and carceral state deciding what happens, how it happens, and who might be impacted by the process. We need to be in charge of that vision. We need to be in control of our own image, of our own communities and more. No longer are we going to be okay with this image forcing us into boxes that we never chose to be in. We will get that autonomy, that control and that power to finally choose because at the end of the day, that is our right.
We deserve better and we always have.
Nura Ahmed is a writer, storyteller, and organizer.
Featured image: Jan 10th Justice for Dolal Idd vigil in Tukwila. (Photo: Nura Ahmed)
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